Monday, 7 March 2016

Aurangabad Caves

Before we visited Aurangabad, I had done some basic research on the city and the surrounding areas of the Indian state of Maharashtra, and it is during that research that I had found out about the Aurangabad Caves. I planned an itinerary and sent my sister off to the Maharashtra Tourism office in Calcutta (Kolkata) to make some enquiries. She came back and told me that the Maharashtra Tourism office had never heard of the Aurangabad Caves! I was rather taken aback; after all, the caves are mentioned even in the Wikipedia article about the city. But it seems, in spite of being nearly 2000 years old, the Aurangabad Caves are not really high on any tourist’s list of priorities.



To answer this question, I will have to begin with The Buddha himself. Most of us have heard the story of a prince named Siddhartha, born in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal, who at age 29, became disillusioned with his royal life after encountering an old man, a diseased man, a corpse and an ascetic. Siddhartha would leave his palace, his wife and a young boy, and go out into the world in search of answers. These answers he famously found under a Pipal tree in Bodh Gaya in India. As he went around, teaching people how to emancipate themselves from the suffering that was an essential part of the human experience, he came to be known as The Buddha, meaning “The Enlightened One”. For those who chose to follow his path, and become monks, the Buddha prescribed a life without material comforts. The monks were to beg for the food that would sustain their bodies while their minds would receive enlightenment through long periods of isolation and meditation. As their residence, the monks chose caves in India’s forests. These were ideally suited to their unique lifestyle. As Buddhism spread through the land, royal patronage came their way. The cave residences of the monks came to sport elaborate decorations in the form of sculptures, paintings, bas-reliefs and indeed entire caves were artificially excavated out of solid mountains, complete with rooms, pillared halls, and even recesses for collecting rain water. The Indian state of Maharashtra has the largest number of such caves. The most famous among them is Ajanta. Of the three cave clusters that form the Aurangabad Caves, at least, one is as old as, if not older, than Ajanta.

The earliest excavations at Aurangabad Caves must have happened around the 2nd Century while the most recent happened around the 7th Century. What makes the Aurangabad Caves unique is the fact that they reveal a continuity in occupation that is not found elsewhere. Etched on the rocks is the entire timeline of Buddhism in India, from its first emergence to the consolidation of the Mahayana creed to its decline and absorption into a resurgent Hindu religion. Located in the heart of the Aurangabad “tehsil”, 2 km North of Bibi Ka Maqbara, the Taj Mahal-like tomb of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s wife, Rabia-ud-Daurani, the Aurangabad Caves are 12 artificial rock-cut caves. Cut into the slopes of the Sihyachal range, the caves are arranged in 3 clusters, at a height of about 100 meters from the plain below. The Eastern and Western groups of caves are located a short distance away from each other on the same slope and face the city of Aurangabad. The 3rd cluster consists of three unfinished caves, devoid of any sacred imagery, on the Northern slope of the same hill, facing away from the city. While the Western and Eastern clusters are easy to reach, the Northern cluster is somewhat more difficult. If you have a car it will take you halfway up the mountain from where you must climb steps cut into the mountain itself to get to the Eastern and Western cave clusters. While this may sound challenging, let me assure you that my nearly 60-year-old mother and I could do it without any trouble, and neither of us is remotely athletic.


Cave no. 3

Cave no. 4
The Western cluster of the Aurangabad Caves consists of 6 rock-cut units, numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 5a by the ASI. This numbering is based on the relative location of the caves and not their chronological succession. The focus of the Western cluster is Cave no. 4 which is a “Chaitya” hall or “Chaitya Griha”, which is a Buddhist prayer hall with a Stupa, a hemispherical mound, at one end. The remarkable thing about Cave no. 4 is its ceiling which is vaulted and ribbed, with a row of horseshoe-shaped arches. The “stupa” monument at the end of the apsidal hall has a high drum and a bulging dome topped by a small balustrade and a harmika, a fence-like or cube-shaped structure commonly found atop Buddhist stupas. Much of this cave had collapsed and what we see today is the result of the conservation and reconstruction efforts by the ASI. Cave no. 4 is from the earliest phase of the Aurangabad Caves, and all other caves in this cluster have come up around it later.

Cave no. 5
Adjacent to Cave no. 4 is a small chapel labelled 4a. This was severely damaged by a collapse and has been recently covered by a concrete vault. Inside is a large Buddha statue, seated in the Bhadrasana posture on an elaborate lion throne. Above the Chaitya Griha, the small porch of Cave no. 5 has also collapsed. Inside is a small shrine with a Buddha seated in Dhyanasana. The conch shell at the Buddha’s feet was probably carved later by Jain followers, who also whitewashed the shrine’s interiors, much of which still remains. A narrow passage goes all the way around the shrine. On both sides of the door are panels which depict a Buddha in bhadrasana on a lotus flower supported by nagas and flanked by standing Padmapaṇi and Vajrapaṇi, also on lotuses. One would normally find dvarpalas or gatekeepers carved into panels on both sides of the door, but not here.

Cave no. 1

Cave no. 2
Cave no. 1 is unfinished and was probably originally meant to be a large Vihara or residential complex. Located at the Southern end of the Western cluster, it is about 13 meters above Cave no. 4. Alongside the 8 richly carved columns, a water tank was also excavated here, but work stopped soon after. Below it is Cave no. 2, which was probably excavated after caves 1 and 3. A water tank is seen here as well, although the porch or mandapa has collapsed. The sculpture here consists almost entirely of devotional images, which includes panels which have been somewhat haphazardly carved out. Cave no. 3 is stylistically similar to the unfinished Cave no. 1 and probably marks the second phase of Aurangabad caves. It is the earliest cave to show signs of being part of the Mahayana movement and bears some resemblance to the caves 1 and 2 of Ajanta. The porch has collapsed here as well, and only parts of 2 pillars survive. Faint traces of paint may be found on the sculptures that decorate the interiors. Square in shape, and roughly 13 meters on each side, this was also meant to be a vihara. The central hall has beautifully decorated pillars, but the doors to the cells on each side show no signs of wear, indicating that they were never used. Inside the sanctum is a magnificent Buddha in Bhadrasana posture, flanked by giant Bodhisattwas holding fly whisks. On either side of the sanctum are several life-size, kneeling devotees of the Buddha, including one which appears to have the head of an animal. These were clearly executed by a master artist.


Cave no. 6

Brahmanical Cave
The Eastern cluster of caves is about a mile away and consists of 5 caves which are different from each other in function, design and imagery. These were probably carved after caves 2 and 5. The reason they are so far away from the Western cluster is probably the non-availability of suitable rocks. At the Southern end of this group is the unique Brahmanical cave which has not been numbered by the ASI. A large, roughly rectangular cave, the excavation of the Brahmanical cave is rough and it appears that several changes were made to the layout as it was being excavated. There are Hindu images here, such as Durga, Ganesha, Shiva and Chamunda, but there are also two very large Buddha images which are comparable only to the one in Cave no. 5.

Entrance to Cave no. 7

Cave no. 7
The most elaborate and complex cave in the entire complex is Cave no 7. A colonnade of 6 square pillars leads to an elaborate mandapa or porch, on either side of which are chapels. In the centre are two windows and a door connecting the porch to the interior of the cave. The sculptures here, which were carved around the 5th Century bear testimony to the tremendous change that Buddhism had undergone at this time. Inside, arranged around a central shrine are 8 cells to serve as residential quarters for the monks. The entrance to the shrine is flanked by beautiful carvings of female deities. Inside is a Buddha in bhadrasana surrounded by smaller Buddha images. To the right of the image are female figures, the central one being that of Tara. Small fragments of paint surviving on the panel indicates that this was once painted. Bits of paint can also be seen in Cave no. 6, which is above this cave. The familiar plan of a central shrine surrounded by a circumambulation path is seen here as well. 6 cells open onto the path, 2 of which have been turned into shrines while one contains a stone bed.

Cave no. 9
Above Cave no. 7 is the incomplete Cave no. 8 which looks like it was meant exclusively for residential purposes. At the Easternmost end is Cave no. 9 whose layout has been altered considerably by extensive collapses. Several of the Buddha images here are incomplete, indicating that work was abandoned, most likely due to a shortage of funds or an abrupt end to patronage. The main attraction here is a large image of the Buddha in Parinirvana, i.e., the dying Buddha. At the foot of the image, carved into the wall is a four-armed Avalokiteshvara.

Cave no. 9 - the dying Buddha


The 3 caves of the Northern cluster are all incomplete. Two of them have barely been touched at all while one has a rectangular porch with partially decorated pillars, somewhat similar to Cave no. 1. Work must have proceeded fast for the decoration on the pillars to have begun before the rest of the cave had been completely excavated. However, the fact that the decorative carvings on the pillars are much less here would indicate that a fewer number of workers were employed here as compared to Cave no. 1.


The only other visitors I saw was this group of Tibetan monks
The Aurangabad Caves are open 7 days a week from 9 am to 5 pm. Tickets are priced at Rs. 10 for Indians and Rs. 100 for foreigners. If you are a photography enthusiast, I would suggest you take half a day to do the Aurangabad Caves, perhaps combining it with a visit to Aurangabad’s famous Pan Chakki in the morning. Carry a torch because the interiors of the caves are quite dark. Unlike Ajanta, flash photography is permitted inside the Aurangabad Caves. For best results I recommend you carry a wide angle prime lens, which will gather more light thanks to its larger aperture. For those using Canon crop sensor cameras (such as the 70D or the 600D), I recommend the excellent 24mm f/2.8 pancake prime which is extremely affordable, fast focusing and tack sharp. Tripods are not allowed inside the Aurangabad Caves (or any ASI site for that matter). Do bear in mind that you will be required to remove your shoes before entering several of the caves, therefore, strap shoes or loafers will be helpful.

View of the Bibi Ka Maqbara from the Aurangabad Caves

Cave no. 2
There are no guides at the Aurangabad Caves. The caretakers often offer to show you around, and do an acceptable job, but are limited by the fact that they know only Hindi and Marathi. If you use their services, do tip them generously, since there are no fixed rates. There are very few books available on the Aurangabad Caves as well, and they tend to be expensive. “The Buddhist Caves at Aurangabad” by Pia Brancaccio is one book with I found helpful. The pdf file can be downloaded free of cost, from here. The first chapter, “The Caves” has all the details about each cave and if you carry a printout of it with you, you won’t need a guide. Some amount of familiarity with Buddhism, Buddhist lore, mythology, and the various postures or “asanas” will also help.

Shivaji's country - the view from Aurangabad Caves


Sohoni, Pushkar – Aurangabad with Dulatabad, Khuldabad and Ahmadnagar
Brancaccio, Pia - The Buddhist Caves at Aurangabad

No comments: